Lord Skanda-Murugan

Kārttikeya in Early Indian Coinage

Yaudheya coin
Yaudheya coinage of Punjab (300-340 AD): Karttikeya standing facing, holding sceptre; peacock on right. In Brahmi: 'Yaudheya Ganasya Jaya' (Victory to the Yaudheya people). Reverse: Goddess standing with hand on hip, wearing transparent garment.
3 Gupta Period coins
Gupta Age coins bearing peacock image

by S. Suresh

Studies of iconographic forms and concepts based on numismatic sources are extremely rare.1 As regards Kārttikeya cult and iconography, scholars have, so far, almost completely ignored the limited yet significant evidence furnished by numismatic evidence.2 The present paper traces the history of the portrayal of the deity and/or his at tributes and symbols on coins in different parts of the Indian sub-continent. An analysis of the chronology as also the artistic, iconographic and socio-religious importance of these coins is also attempted.

The Coins: History and Iconography

The earliest representation of Kārttikeya on coins occurs during the reign of the Kushan ruler Huvishka (first century A.D.) who was the successor of Kanishka I.3 Although the portrayal of Hindu deities, mainly Śiva or Oes'a on Kushan coins began even during the rule of Kanishka's predecessor Wima Kadpheses, Huvishka is the sole ruler to have issued coins bearing an amazing variety of gods and goddesses in varies combinations. For instance, Huvishka is the only Kushan ruler to mint coins showing Şiva with Umā or Ommo.

The Kārttikeya-type coins of Huvishka bear wide variations in form, style and iconographic content. The deity is shown either alone with the name Māsena (Mahāsena), or in pair with the label Skandakumāro-Vizāgo (Skandakumāra and Vişāka) or in a triad with the legend Skandakumāro-Māseno-Vizāgo (Skandakumāra, Mahāsena and Vişākha). The deities are invariably shown standing to front, on an ornamental pedestal or platform. Vişākha and Skandakumāra are mostly clad in a translucent loose garment and are adorned with heavy jewels including head-dress, armour, necklace, armlet and wristlet, while one hand of the deity rests on the hip, the other usually holds the trişula (trident). A war-weapon such as the sword or the club is sometimes seen on the waist. Although Skandakumāra, Mahāsena and Vişākha are now considered to be different names of the same god, during the Kushan period, each of them was considered a distinct deity,4 of course sharing a few iconographic features with one another. It has even been suggested that the above ‘three standing-deities-reverse-type' coins of Huvishka may have been inspired by a somewhat similar roman coin device. 5 Interestingly, roman coins of this type reached India in considerable numbers by the process of trade during the Kushan period.6

At this juncture, it may be noted that Kārttikeya, who has always been identified with weapons, war and hunting, is the Indian counter part of Orlagno, the Iranian God,of war.7 Both these deities are often represented holding the spear. Orlangno is portrayed on the reverse of the coins of Kanishka but significantly, never on the coins of Huvishka. The Kārttikeya cult had become so popular among both the rulers and the ruled that no other war-god was thought to be depicted on coins.

The Kushan Kārttikeya coins served as the model for several later coins. An uninscribed copper coin from Ujjain or Ujjainin in central India bears, on the obverse, a deity tentatively identified as Şiva or Kārttikeya.8 The deity holds a staff in the right hand and a pot in the left.

Next, the early tribal republics including the Audumbaras and the Yaudheyas of Punjab issued a good number of Kārttikeya coins.9 Although the favorite deity of the Audumbaras was Mahādeva or Şiva, they did issue coins featuring on the obverse, Kārttikeya standing to left and holding spear in right hand. The Yaudheyas minted copper coins exhibiting, on the obverse, the usual form of Kārttikeya with his mount the peacock to his left. In addition, the Yaudheyas issued for the first time ever, coins depicting the six-headed form of the deity on the obverse. The female deity on the reverse of some of the Yaudheya Kārttikeya is believed to be the consort of the deity on the obverse. She is seen standing or walking to left, with the left hand on the hip.

The profound impact of Kushan coins on Yaudheya currency is proved not only by the close resemblance between the Kārttikeya on the latter coins and the Mahāsena on the former but also by the fact that sometimes the Yaudheyas restruck the Kushan copper coins for use within their territory. The Yaudheya coins often refer to Kārttikeya as Brahmanya.

It may be noted that Kārttikeya was the principal deity of the Yaudheyas. The sacred town of Rohtak, also called Rohtak or mint of the Yaudheyas. In fact, the Yaudheyas administered their territory in the name of Kārttikeya, in the same manner in which the state of Travancore (Kerala) was in modern times, governed by its ruler in the name of Lord Padmanābha or Viśņu.

The most beautiful Kārttikeya coins appear during the age of the imperial Guptas who displayed both S'aivite and Saisņavite devices and motifs on their coins.10 Some Gupta rulers even bore the name Skanda or Kumāra. Kumāra Gupta I (415-450 A.D) issued gold coins picturing, on the reverse, Kārttikeya holding spear in left hand and riding a peacock. Appropriately, the obverse of this coin type depicts the King feeding with his right hand, fruits, nuts or grains to a peacock. The legend on both the obverse and the reverse of this coin mentions ‘Mahendrakumārah' which is one of the epithets of this famous ruler. Several other gold coins of Kumāra Gupta I feature, on the reverse, various forms of the goddess feeding the peacock. The reverse of a rare silver coin of this ruler depicts a large fantailed peacock occupying almost the entire flan.

After the Guptas, Kārttikeya-type coins are almost unknown in North India.

In South India, coins exhibiting Kārttikeya-related themes are very few. Further, there is no unanimity among scholars about the precise identification of the figures and symbols on these coins. A particular form of the spear intimately associated with Kārttikeya, specially in the Tamil country, features on the coins of the Caŋkam age Cōḷas and Malaiyamāns.11 One may recall that the Tamil Caŋkam literature contains copious references to the deity.12 It is plausible that the spear on these coins represents Kārttikeya specially in the light of the occurrence of several other Şaivism related devices and symbols on the coins of the early Tamil rulers. Examples: trident, bull and Şivalinga on Caŋkam Pāņdya coins and the bull on the Caŋkam Cōla coins.

An enigmatic gold die-struck coin issued by Vikramaditya I (655-681 A.D) of the house of the western Chālukyas of Badmi (Karnataka) bears, on its reverse, the figure, of Kārttikeya.13 Here the deity is standing to left; his left hand hangs downwards while the right hand gently rests on the right hip. A peacock with its huge plumage is vaguely discernible between the legs of the deity. Near the deity are a snake with raised hood and a boar. One should remember that Kārttikeya is mentioned as the patron-deity ofthe Badmi Chālukyas in some of their copper plate grants.

The above Chālukya coin portraying the war-god Kārttikeya was probably a ‘special issue' minted to commemorate the ruler's victory against the Pallavas of Kañci. Moreover, the coin which weighs around 120 grains is reported to be based on the weight standard of Kushan-early Gupta currencies. It is likely that the very concept of portraying Kārttikeya on coins was learnt by the Chālukyas from the Kushans and the Guptas. Incidentally, the term mayūra gadyāņa literally meaning 'peacock gold coin' occurs in inscriptions of a later date in Karnataka region.14 In recent years, gold coins bearing different versions of the peacock on the obverse have been reported from Dharwar district in Karnataka as also from Beed, a village 15 km from the well-known site of Kolhapur in Maharashtra.15 The coin from Beed displays on its reverse a Śivalinga in high relief.

After the Chālukyas, Kārttikeya related coins are almost unknown is South India until the later Vijayanagar period. It is strange that the deity does not find a place on Vijayanagar gold coins known for the plethora of Hindu gods and goddesses on them.16 Kārttikeya-related themes are again hardly recorded even on the temple-tokens of late medieval south India.17

Standing Karttikeya with peacock on copper coin of Raghunatha Nayak, Tanjavur 17th cent.
Standing Karttikeya with peacock on copper coin of Raghunatha Nayak, Tanjavur 17th Cent.

An unpublished copper coin issued by Raghunātha Nāyak (early 17th century) of Tañjāvur (Tamilnadu) displays on the obverse, the standing figure of Kārttikeya; the peacock is partially seen behind the deity.18 The reverse of the coin depicts a seated bull below the Śivalinga. The exquisitely sculpted Subrahmaņya sub-shrine within the campus of the Brihadi~svara Temple in Tanjavur was also erected by the Tanjavur nayak rulers around this time.19 

At a slightly later date, Kantirava Narasaraja Wodeyar (1638-1656 A.D) of Mysore issued 'Peacock-obverse' type and 'Kārttikeya-seated-on-peacock-obverse' type coins in copper.20 Coins of these two types are mostly reported from the Kongu region of Tamilnadu and are believed to be among the earliest copper coins of the Wodeyars.

On the basis of circumstantial evidences, the peacock on all the coins discussed above are presumed to represent Kārttikeya. It should however be stressed that the peacock which, on date, is the national bird of India, is found almost throughout the continent and the bird has greatly influenced Indian art and literature. Moreover, the bird is associated with many other Hindu deities, specially Kriśņa. Indeed, the bird is seen on coins of all periods of Indian history, right from the Mauryan punch-marked coins down to the issues of the Setupatis of Ramnad in Tamilnadu (17th Century). Thus not all peacock-coins can be attributed to the Kārttikeya cult.


The foregoing survey reveals that the minting and circulation of Kārttikeya coins are mainly confined to two distinct periods and to two distant regions:

  1. 1. Kārttikeya coins were in vogue in North India from the days of the Kushans to the period of the Guptas (around 400 years)
  2. 2. Kārttikeya coins were used in extremely limited numbers in specific pockets of South India for around 100 years during the Nāyak-Wodeyar period.

It is clear that among all the Hindu gods, Kārttikeya, despite being frequently associated with royalty and war, is the least represented on coinage, especially South Indian coinage. This is a bit intriguing because his cult was very popular in most parts of India, particularly the South, from very early times. Coins bearing the figure of Kārttikeya are in gold or copper. Coins featuring merely the symbols and attributes associated with the deity are, however, more numerous and are known in silver also. The coins of different periods and dynasties refer to the deity by varied names.

The Kārttikeya on the earliest coins was undoubtedly modeled on the basis of stone sculptures. Yet there are significant iconographic variations between these two classes of figures. The Kārttikeya coins of the Guptas are among the best specimens of Indian numismatic art. The well-proportioned figures on these coins ably exhibit an illusion of depth and a sense of movement. The Kārttikeya on many other coins including those of the Wodeyars is totally devoid of the three-dimensional effect and appears like a ‘thumb-nail' sketch. The extremely small area of the coin-flan poses the greatest challenge to the artist and/or die-cutter.

Further discoveries of Kārttikeya coins, specially those issued by minor little-known dynasties, may be expected to throw fresh light on the precise chronology and socio-cultural significance of this coin-type.

Notes and References:

1. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi, attempted some such studies as part of a national research project entitled ‘Numismatic art of India: documentation of materials' (1991-94). Prof. B.N. Mukherjee, Caramichael Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, University of Calcutta, Calcutta was the Hon. Director and Dr. R.C. Sharma, formerly Director-General, National Museum, New Delhi was the Hon. Consultant for the project. As a full-time Research Fellow for the project, I studied the art in the coinage of various South Indian dynasties and also the foreign coins found in India. I examined the relevant coin collections in all the major museums in South India and in the National Museum, Oxford; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and the University Museum, Manchester (all in U.K)

The present paper too is based on my studies and observations during the project. I am thankful to Prof. Mukherjee and Dr. Rita Sharma, Keeper (Numismatics and Epigraphy) Kārttikeya National Museum, New Delhi, for their encouragement and help while preparing this paper.

I have earlier undertaken similar studies relating to Viśņu and Şiva in Indian coinage. See S. Suresh, "Vishnu in South Indian coinage" in G. Kamalakar ed., Vishnu in Art, Thought and Literature (Hyderabad, 1993) pp. 273-78; idem, (Murugan Temple, Eastham, London, 1994).

2. For instance, see F. L. Hernault, L'iconographic de Subrahmaņya and Tamilnad (French) (Pondicherry, 1978).

3. For further details about the Kārttikeya coins of the Kushana, see P.L. Gupta Coins (New Delhi, 1985) pp. 41-42, 1192-95. For general surveys of various aspects of the historical and artistic importance of Kushan coins, see P.L. Gupta and Sarojini Kulashreshtha, Kusāna Coins and History (New Delhi, 1994); S.K. Maity, Early Indian coins and Currency System (New Delhi, 1970): Pranabananda Jash, "Religious Significance of the Kushāna Coinage". The Journal of the Numismatic Society of India LIII 1 & 2 (1991) pp. 173-79, For numismatography and bibliography of Kushan coins, see Biswajeet Rath, "Numismatics: The changing Face V - Studies on Kushana Coinage" IIRNS Newsline 14 (1997) p. 4.

4. P.L. Gupta 1969 (Supra n.3) pp 30-31; Pranabananda Jash 1991 (Supra n.3) pp 173-79.

5. B.N. Mukherjee "Impact of the Kushān coinage on Early Indian Indigenous Coins" in Ajay Mitra Shastri ed., Foreign Elements in Indian Indigenous Coins (Varanasi,1982) pp. 13-26. I had a long discussion on this topic with Prof. Mukherjee when he visited my residence at Madras in December, 1996.

6. For more details about the export of Roman coins and other Roman antiquities to India see S. Suresh, "Roman Vestiges in Kanchipuram" in Nanditha Krishna ed., Kanchi-A Heritage of Art and Religion (Madras, 1992a) pp. 56-61; idem, A study of the Roman Coins and other Antiquities in India with special reference to South India (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Jawahrlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 1993); idem, "early Roman finds in Madras city' in G.J. Sudhakar ed., Aspects of Madras-A Historical perspective (Madras, 1993a) pp. 13-16; idem, "Recent Archaeological discoveries and Studies in Tamil Nadu ", quarterly Bulletin of the School of Historical and Cultural Studies I 3 & 4 (1994-95) pp. 11-16; idem, " Countermarks of Buddhist symbols on the Roman coins found in Andhra Desa (synopsis of the paper)" in contribution of Andhra Desa to Buddhism-souvenir (Hyderabad, 1997) pp. 51-52.

7. For a very brief discussion of Kārttikeyaor Muruga as the ‘god of the battlefield' see S. Suresh, "Defence Architecture in the Early Tamil country", Indian History Congress - Proceedings of the Forty-ninth Session (Delhi, 1989) pp. 657-61.

8. P.L. Gupta 1969 (Supra n.3) p.35.

9. For discussions on these coins, see Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, Coins and Icons: A Study of Myths and Symbols in Indian Numismatic Art (Calcutta, 1977) pp. 221-25;  Jai Prakash "Observations on the Tribal Coinages of Ancient India", The Journal of the Numismatic society of India XXVII 2 (1965) pp. 123-41; B.N. Mukherjee, 1982 (Supra n.5) pp. 13-26; Satya Shrava 1985 (Supra n.3) p. 14.

10. For detailed descriptions of these coins, see P.L. Gupta 1969 (Supra n.3) pp. 53-58 and C.S. Roy, "Foreign Elements in the Coinage of the Guptas" in Ajay Mitra Shastri ed., Foreign Elements in Indian Indigenous Coins (Varanasi, 1982) pp. 144-52. For numismatography and bibliography of Gupta coins, see Biswajeet Rath "Numismatics: the Changing Face VII - Studies on Gupta Coinages" IIRNA Newsline 15, (1997) p. 4.

11. Most of these coins are, on date, in private collections. I am thankful to Mr. A. Seetharaman of Tanjavur for permitting me to study his collections.

12. The bibliography for the references to the deity in early Tamil literature is vast. See R. Champakalakshmi, Trade, Ideology and Urbanization-South India, 300 BC to AD 1300 (New Delhi, 1996), pp. 60, 101.

13. Ramayya, "On an Unique Gold Coin of Vikramaditya-I of the Western Chalukya Dynasty of Badami". The Journal of the Numismatic Society of India XXVII 1 (1965) pp 46-52.

14. For epigraphical references to ‘mayūra gadyāna' see Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya,  Coins and Currency Systems in South India Ad 225-1300 (New Delhi, 1977) pp. 129,170; S.J. Mangalam, " Some Medieval Gold Coins of the Deccan" Studies in South Indian coins IV (1994) pp. 101-09.

15. S.J. Mangalam 1994 (Supra n.14) pp. 101-09.

16. For lists and descriptions of Vijayanagar coins see A.V. Narasimhamurthy, Coins and Currency system in Vijayanagara Empire (Varanasi, 1991); N. Ramesan, A Catalogue of the Vijayanagar coins of the Andhra Pradesh government Museum (Hyderabad, 1979); N. Sankara Narayana. Catalogue of Vijayanagar Coins in the Madras Government Museum (Madras, 1977); S. Suresh 1993 (Supra n.1) pp 273-78.

17. For more details about the temple-tokens, see S. Suresh, ‘A Note on the Temple tokens of Late Medieval South India", Paper presented at the Vth Annual Conference of the South Indian Numismatic Society (Tiruchirappalli, 1995)

18. The coin is in the collection of Mr. A. Seetharaman, Tanjavur.

19. For more details about this sub-shrine, see J.M. Somasundaram. The Great Temple at Tanjore (Madras, 1935) pp 10-11; S. Suresh, Conservation of Brihadisvara Temple, Tanjore-A Historical Study (unpublished M.Phil. dissertation, University of Madras, Madras, 1986).

20. A. Seetharaman and N. Jayanthi, Unpublished Copper coins of Kanthirava Narasaraja Wodeyar, Studies in South Indian Coins VII (1997) pp. 125-27.

Dr. S. Suresh took his PhD in Art History and Numismatology from Jaharlal Nehru University. He has published more than seventy research papers in scholarly journals of the U.K. and India, including the 1992 monography "Roman Antiquities in Tamil Nadu". He now serves as a consultant to INTACH and the TVS Educational Society. He may be contacted at:
45, IV Street
Padmanabha Nagar
Adyar, Chennai-600 020 India
Phone: 0091 44 4918479
Fax : 0091 44 4919402
Email: jswamimd2.vsnl.net.in

This paper was presented at the First International Conference Seminar on Skanda-Murukan, December 1998

See also these related research articles about the cult of Skanda-Kumāra in Sanskrit sources:

Other articles from International Conferences on Skanda-Murukan